Science and politics

As with most election campaigns, science is never on the top of the minds of voters. Perhaps it is because elections are geared towards appealing to emotion (the irrational) rather to that which is inherently rational: science.

Aberrations can occur when emotion drives science, but since advocacy taps emotion, channeling emotional appeal can be effective for lobbying for or against political action with respect to certain areas of scientific study.

Three such issues are global warming, embryonic stem cells and outer space. Al Gore (of all people) got a number of people passionate about the weather (of all things). However, is climate research the best pursuit for elusive research dollars? Or are people too “hot headed” about the topic? According to its emotional advocates, the “debate is over” and one could conclude from such a conclusive declaration that further research is unnecessary and that it is action which is needed.

Does politics hurt science? A lot of scientific study is accomplished using tax dollars, so politics will inevitably get involved. I spent a year doing malaria research in the United States in 2002. At the time, less than one year after 9/11, I was told that when professors made grant applications to federal funding agencies, they would try to find a link between their research and counter-terrorism in order to secure funding. Now, researchers tie their projects to climate change.

Malaria is an infectious disease and certain infectious diseases could be used in a biological terrorist attack. Similarly, malaria is de rigeur in the climate change debate as warmer swampy areas are breeding grounds for the malaria vector. Unfortunately for our funding, malaria is a highly unlikely infectious disease for use in terrorism and studying new ways of combating the malaria parasite directly (which is what we were researching) has nothing to do with climate. Research dollars are more likely to go to projects that find evidence to support the theory of anthropogenic climate change, not to fund research that treats its theoretical effect. Public money instead more broadly targets climate change to reduce the incidences of malaria by reducing the atmospheric concentration of CO2. This is akin to hitting an infectious mosquito with a proverbial sledgehammer. Governments will spend billions on climate change when lives can be saved at $10 per net and relatively few research dollars to develop new treatments.

Further, money is redirected into projects that are sometimes only tangentially support the theory of human-caused global warming. What do the mating songs of the American Tree Sparrow have to do with climate change, you may ask? Are their songs sadder this year compared to last indicating a warming Earth? Get some research dollars behind that project!

Emotion can also inhibit scientific inquiry. Embryonic stem cell research has proven to be a political hot potato in the past. There is great potential for therapeutic advances derived from such research. Advocates with or without a strong grasp of the cellular basis of life (and/or what constitutes human life) constitute both sides on the debate regarding research involving these cells. In many cases, emotion informs their position on the science rather than their scientific position. George W. Bush took a mediating approach on the issue when it crossed his desk earlier in his term of office: while allowing for research to be conducted on the cells, federal funds would not be used. Did the conciliatory approach cause unnecessary scientific stagnation because the emotional element? Or, as some would argue, were emotionally-driven second thoughts necessary to preserve ethics in science (or at least that which is funded in part by people morally opposed to such research)?

Scientists must always be mindful of ethics as they proceed, yet a populist balancing of complicated scientific understanding and ethics has the potential of being regressive in its emotive and sometimes ignorant reactions on a variety of research topics.

On the other hand, emotionally-driven science can deliver research dollars for tangible and measurable benefit. Consider the amount of resources used pursuing cancer treatment options and even potential cures for certain forms. Certainly this is a better pursuit than spending eight years upon a project for extracting sunbeams out of cucumbers (which were to be put in phials hermetically sealed, and let out to warm the air in raw inclement summers)*.

Should science policy discussions be limited to the experts since they are more likely to understand the parameters of rational scientific pursuit? Or should the process be influenced by the general public who possess real (even if uninformed) concerns often times driven by irrational emotion? Politics, often a product of emotion, causes aberrations in the scientific process. Where can we can find the ideal?

The Iowa caucuses are being held tonight. Here are the positions of the visible US Presidential candidates on science (or at least that which intersects politics due to emotionally driven undertones). (graphic from

*apologies to Swift

Thoughts about Live Earth

Yesterday, on seven stages around the world over 1 million people attended a mega-concert event geared to raise awareness on the issue of climate change or the “climate crisis” as billed by event organizers.

News reports claim that the event had a reach to about 2 billion television watchers around the world.

Despite the disputed logic of the cause by some, it was heartening to see so many people interested in attending a rally for what they truly believe to be a good cause. It is good to know that there is a lot of positive energy out there ready to be channeled to fight for good causes whatever they may be.

However, it is unfortunate that these concerts do not do much to raise “awareness”; often participants of such mega-concerts are the most aware of these issues. I’m not sure how many people tuned in and said “Global… warming? Really? Thank goodness for John Mayer or else I would have never known”. On a more useful note, Billy Corgan made me aware that his new Smashing Pumpkins CD is about to be released. Thanks Billy.

Despite the good intentions of these mega-concerts, the problems that they purport to address still exist and for the most part, have not really advanced along a good track. Live Aid, and most recently, Live 8 meant to raise “awareness” of poverty in Africa. Despite the collective efforts of our mothers (“eat your vegetables, there are children starving in Africa”) and the calling upon the power of rock to solve the world’s ills, poverty still exists in Africa.

Often, the logic behind such efforts is paradoxical. Dumping money and aid on Africa, according to some economists, is exacerbating the problem there. Further, the music industry is the vanguard of consumerism. How does flying Madonna’s 100 member entourage from New York to London on her private jet to express a message of conservation ring true to anyone? Media is to be consumed and the music industry cranks out a lot of plastic, puts a lot of rubber on the road (and CO2 in the air) while musicians tour, and demands terawatts of electricity to power countless speakers and to illuminate hundreds of millions of TV screens.

As for the Live Earth mega-concert, the worst moment was at Giants stadium in New Jersey (billed as New York), when Petra Nemcova, the supermodel that survived the Asian tsunami took the stage to help raise awareness about our “climate in crisis”. I would never shrug aside Ms. Nemcova’s harrowing ordeal, however, no serious scientist would ever link that particular tsunami with climate change as the 2004 tsunami was caused by an earthquake, not by CO2. It is unfortunate that the tragedy of that event would be used erroneously to advance such a debatable call to action on a debatable cause.

There were a few ironic moments including rap superstar Ludacris telling the audience (in song) that “if you ain’t got no money [sic], take your broke ass home”. Of course, this lyric is a part of a song that he sings on with Fergie (of Black Eyed Peas fame) which also includes the songstress singing “We [sic] flyin’ first class / Up in the sky / Poppin’ champagne / Livin’ my life / In the fast lane / And I wont change / By the Glamorous, oh the flossy flossy”. The video pictures Fergie flying in a private jet, ironically the vehicle of choice of some of the Live Earth performers. Irony is being told by some of this world’s greatest CO2 producers to cut our consumption. Ludacris’ other credits include a starring role in 2 Fast 2 Furious. Was it a movie about plug-in hybrid cars? Not likely. The film has inspired a generation of nitrous-infused street racers. Oh well, I’m sure he got some carbon credits in his gift basket to help offset the guilt. Ludacris! [sic]

Finally, if the intent of the mega-concert was to be a massive information campaign to finally bring everyone, united, onside to fight climate change, why the divisive elements? Melissa Ethridge chastised Bush’s ‘with us or the terrorists’ refrain by saying that in addressing the world’s problems that there is no “us and them”. She proceeded to drive a wedge between left and right by calling both Nixon and the current Republican president “criminals”. In fact, Ethridge’s performance was more of an anti-war screed than a call to unite against climate change. Macy Gray’s appearance also sought to alienate a significant proportion of the American population by having her stage performers wear anti-Bush and anti-Cheney t-shirts. The concert became an appeal to the left and had the effect of preaching to the choir while it did little to reach out to what should have been its intended targets: the skeptics on the right.

Were you one of the “2 billion” that tuned into the Live Earth concerts? What are your thoughts? If Al Gore runs for president (and wins) will we be fighting a costly war on warming AND a war of terror? Will Gore have any better luck bringing China and India into the Coalition of the Cooling? Will you be buying the new Smashing Pumpkins album when it comes out on July 10th? Consume, but don’t consume!

The War on Warming

If the left argues that the War on Terror is simply a slogan to exaggerate a real but smaller problem in order for their right-wing counterparts to advance bad and expensive policy, then what of their War on Warming?

If we don’t do it for the polar bears, then what about the kittens? Won’t somebody think of the kittens?

Droves of cats and kittens are swarming into animal shelters nationwide, and global warming is to blame, according to one pet adoption group.

Several shelters operated by a national adoption organization called Pets Across America reported a 30 percent increase in intakes of cats and kittens from 2005 to 2006, and other shelters across the nation have reported similar spikes of stray, owned and feral cats.

The cause of this feline flood is an extended cat breeding season thanks to the world’s warming temperatures, according to the group, which is one of the country’s oldest and largest animal welfare organizations.

If Al Gore announces that he’s running for president, many observers predict that he’ll have a good shot at the White House. If so, are we about to see an escalation of The War on Warming on a full scale, spending billions upon billions to fight an invisible but determined enemy?